Is Europe ready for self-driving vehicles?

Self-driving vehicles may one day be the ultimate symbol of future transport: the vehicles that can take us anywhere we want, without us even needing to actually drive them. When we are too busy or too tired to put our hands on the wheel and navigate the streets, they can effortlessly weave through the traffic and take us home or deliver goods. And all in comfort, speed and safety.

That, at least, is the theory. Many automotive companies are testing self-driving technologies, as well as newcomers like Google with their Waymo project. Some, like Tesla’s Autopilot, are holding back from full self-driving until the legal, regulatory, and technical hurdles are overcome. But what are the laws for this technology – and does Europe need to have a rulebook in place before they become reality?

The European Union has been cautious about wading into the issue until the technology has been fully tested. The third part of the European Commission’s Mobility Package, published last May, set out plans for an EU strategy for connected and automated mobility, but stressed that further efforts are needed to ensure that there is sufficient funding to support the sector and that there are appropriate safety and liability rules.

On January 16, the European Parliament had its say on it, adopting a non-binding resolution calling for more investment in autonomous driving. The resolution says driverless vehicles would “reduce transport costs, improve road safety, increase mobility and reduce environmental impacts”. It also called for “awareness campaigns to increase confidence” of citizens in automated driving, acknowledging some citizens expressed “distrust” in e.g. self-driving cars.

An attempt to catch up

The resolution is, in some respects, surprising: the EU is often wary about new technology, tending to think first about how to regulate it. But MEPs seemed more concerned about the EU losing pace against American and Chinese rivals in autonomous vehicles.

They urge the Commission and EU countries to take a leading role in the international technical harmonization of automated vehicles – a process currently taking place in the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (VCRT). But both those bodies seem notoriously slow and restrictive. By comparison, neither the US nor China have aligned their laws on road traffic or type approval with UNECE or Vienna regulations – and both have been able to produce more and better research into autonomous driving technology than Europe.

The Commission is attempting to catch up. It is currently preparing legislation for self-driving cars, which will address issues like the standards that allow them to communicate with each other. Officials want to ensure interoperability between systems, compatibility and continuity of services – all through a technology-neutral approach for vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

But by the time it is approved – after passing through the EU’s long legislative chain – will Europe still be able to compete with its rivals? This is the challenge when trying to regulate an evolving technology: if you arrive too late, it is hard to shape the rules; and if you regulate too soon, you can stifle the innovation needed to create the market. With self-driving vehicles, there may never be a perfect moment, or a perfect regulation. But at least the EU is working on it.